How to deal with the overwhelm of having to do it all
There is a lot of pressure on modern mothers. Despite slowly changing sentiments, the dominant narrative in western society is that mothers are expected to be the primary care giver 24/7, while also being a dutiful partner, running a household, financially contributing to the family, keeping themselves fit, healthy and youthful, and maintaining social and family connections. If we’re lucky we can squeeze in hobbies! The load is physical, mental and emotional.
Are you exhausted and overwhelmed from doing it all?
It’s no wonder really.
We’re told we can do it all and that we should do it without complaining and without needing help. We’re sold the ideals of the perfect mother and superwoman.
But these ideals are completely unrealistic.
When we constantly try to live up to these ideals, we find ourselves always rushing, doing and multitasking. We can’t take a break because there’s always more to be done and because if we stop we may never be able to show that we can indeed be the perfect mother and superwoman!
In addition, we love our children so deeply and want to give them the very best start to life, which makes us take all the advice out there very seriously, feeling pulled in a millions directions as we try to get parenting right and not damage our children. The stakes feel so high!
Overwhelmed or stressed?
For many women, the effect of all this pressure and striving goes beyond stress to overwhelm.
Overwhelm is next level stress, where you perceive the demands placed on you to outstrip the resources you have to cope with them, to the point that you are unable to function. It feels uncomfortable and uncontrollable.
When you’re overwhelmed the things you have to do aren’t just tasks or decisions, they are threats to your nervous system. In response to the threat, your brain switches off the executive thinking functions and defers to the emotional centre of our brain that is in charge of your survival.
You might experience anxiety, anger, panic, worry, irritability, doubt and helplessness. You may notice tightness in your chest, knot in your stomach, quickened heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, sleeplessness, or tears at the ready. It may be hard to organise your thoughts and focus. Your brain will likely feel foggy or as if it is in slow motion.
Overwhelm is your nervous system’s natural response to a very stressful, demanding situation.
Despite how you might feel, it’s not a sign of weakness or that you are not good enough.
Overwhelm is your nervous system’s way of saying, “Hey, stop! This is all too much. We need to change our approach here.” It’s sending a very important message to get you to reduce the demands placed on you (by others, or by yourself).
How to deal with overwhelm
1. When you notice the overwhelm, stop
You may feel like you need to push through, but when your nervous system is overwhelmed, it needs a break to restore balance.
Bring yourself into the present moment but focusing on taking long, slow breaths. This interrupts the overwhelm and activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm you down so you have more brain resources to deal with the situation. If you feel the need to move, try shaking your hands vigorously. Splashing cold water on your face or letting it run over your wrists can also help.
Notice and name how you feel and any thoughts that are fuelling the overwhelm without judging yourself for it. Notice any sensations in your body.
Show yourself some compassion, similar to this: “It’s ok to feel overwhelmed. I’m carrying a lot right now and my body is telling me it needs to slow down. There’s nothing wrong with me. It feels hard but I can get through this.”
2. Reduce other stimuli that may be contributing to the overwhelm
Take a break if possible (scrolling social media is not a break). A walk around the block or backyard can be very helpful if that’s available to you. Clear the space around you, or step outside if clutter or untidiness is triggering you. Turn off noise. Move away from people if needed and possible.
We put a lot of pressure on our brain’s resources to remember everything that is going on – mental to-do lists, schedules, plans, changes. To reduce the load, write everything down.
3. Get clear on what’s most important right now
There are many things you feel you should be doing, but what is most important to you at this moment?
Break bigger tasks into smaller steps and then look at everything that is demanding your time to identify 1 necessary, manageable next step. Let yourself complete this step and feel a sense of progress.
When you are doing this step, don’t do anything else. Multitasking often contributes to overwhelm and at this point you’re aiming to slow down.
4. Figure out how to reduce the ongoing demands
When calm, reflect honestly on whether the demands you are faced with are realistic for one person. There are a number of factors that contribute to us taking on more than is reasonable, including:
- You equate your value to your productivity and output.
- You’re holding yourself to the unrealistic standards of the perfect mum and superwoman, or to other people’s standards.
- You’re not clear on what is most important to you.
- You struggle to say no.
- You lack clear boundaries for your time and energy.
- Resting makes you feel uncomfortable and guilty.
- You overwork and overthink to try to control things that are not in your control.
Can you relate to any of these?
To prevent recurring overwhelm, it’s important to identify and address the root cause(s). Usually, women need more space in their lives. They need to do less and look after themselves more.
You are not an endless supply of energy, action and focus. When every moment of your life is filled, you eventually get depleted and need to recharge before setting into action again. Your brain gets tired with overuse without breaks. We all need to learn to notice when we are approaching our limits and set boundaries to protect our wellbeing.
Micro breaks throughout the day can reduce overwhelm by giving your brain and body a chance to recharge and reset. Look for opportunities to take a few minutes to let your brain disengage from anything taxing and do something that feels nourishing and energising (which could be doing absolutely nothing).
You don’t have to continue feeling so overwhelmed but it will take some courage and commitment to do things differently to prevent it from being a regular occurrence.
Remember, there is nothing wrong with you and there are some very real reasons that mothers feel overwhelmed in our society. The pace and load you are sustaining are likely unrealistic and you are allowed to slow down, take breaks, figure out what is most important to you and fiercely protect your boundaries and wellbeing.
The only permission you need is your own.
Louise East is a qualified Mindset and Life Coach who specialises in working with mothers who struggle with guilt and perfectionism. She loves to shine a light on the social conditioning of mothers and how they are undergoing a complete transformation called matrescence. Using her signature approach, Louise helps women see and release the conditioning and beliefs that are keeping them stuck in coping strategies, renew their mindset and relationship with themselves, and confidently be the woman and mother they really want to be. Louise is known for her deep understanding of people and creating a safe and compassionate environment for women to navigate even the most difficult of topics.